Friday, September 14, 2012


Jewish sources include many different theories of teshuva. One that is particularly apropos to modern times is that expounded by Rav Kook, in his 1925 work Orot Hateshuva. In addition to discussing the benefits of teshuva, Rav Kook points out some of its potential pitfalls, which are instructive and worthy of mention.

Rav Kook says that repentance repairs the fundamental will, a will which comprises the depth of a person's very life. It is not the superficial will, but that essential will which forms the foundation of an autonmomous living (ch. 9 § 1). It is not hard to see that the will Rav Kook refers to is synonymous with the will described in Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. It is a proto-fundamental will which comes before thought, before reason or logic. This will establishes the psyche as separate and apart from the otherwise all-engulfing will of the universe. It is this will, this ego, essentially, that stakes out the possibility of an independent, free personality. Without it, man fades into the general cosmic will, a will that Rav Kook obviously identifies with the will of God.

Because of this, the will's essential characteristic is pride. Without Man's pride demanding of himself recognition as an autonomous being, he would not be independent, free or creative, since without a sense of his own value, he would regress into stagnation, recognizing no benefit he can bestow upon the world. As the author of the Tanya states (פירוש למגילת אסתר): "Anyone who begins to serve is impossible without the use of the crude characteristics, in that he must set himself up as a 'someone', an ego, that indeed must serve God."  In other words, a being that has no persona of his own, no ego, no 'crude' characteristic of pride at all, feels that he has nothing to offer the world, or even to offer God, as it were, in serving Him. Such a being cannot serve God. It is only when a person feels important enough to have a right to exist as an autonomous entity that he can affirm that his work on earth is pregnant with meaning and makes a difference.

In light of this, what is teshuva? Rav Kook explains that the word, meaning "return", is the return of the fundamental will to its healthy desire, to first stand autonomously, and then set as life's goal the will of  God and the perfection of the world.  Through the abhorrence at sin and regret over the distancing of oneself from the stream of God's will, a person corrects his foundational will, and returns, in deed. Thus, in place of the dischord between a person's pride-will and God, he reconnects himself and his will to the life-flow from God.

Of course, pride comes along with danger. The danger is that a person might place himself too high upon the rungs of importance, and lose his humility, which is necessary in order to subjugate  himself to the will of a Higher Power. This is one danger inherent in the teshuva process.

Additionally, another danger lurks in the paths of repentance: that a person might fall prey to depression. In ch. 9 §5, Rav Kook points out that the penitent must ensure that the feelings of sadness and regret only apply to the bad, and not the good. Thinking thoughts of repentance can remind a person of the existential tragedy and almost certain failures inherent in their sojourn in a mortal body: אין צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא. These themes can evoke regret and inaction - not just in the evil that a person commits, but also in the good. Angst can cause a surrender to fate - better that I not exist, better that I not act, better that I do nothing, though this means I do no good, rather than act, and also do bad. The penitent may end up regretting all actions, even the good ones. This is a danger against which teshuva must defend. The path of active duty is certainly fraught with dangers, but "לא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה", we must not abdicate our duty.

It is for this reason, says Rav Kook (ibid. §10), that immediately after the High Holidays, the calendar brings us to Simchat Torah, the celebration of active service of Hashem in joyful communion. Teshuva must limit its resignation and sadness to the bad, and allow us to still fill ourselves with motivation and alacrity to continue in upright, positive service of God.